A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post about how it seems like nicotine addiction could potentially be very easily achieved. I got a lot of feedback on this post from all of my blog's two readers; in typical fashion, though, most of this feedback was provided via direct emails as opposed to potentially discussion creating post comments.
One of those emails ended up creating a small discussion on the nature of addictions in general, so I thought I'd generate an independent post out of my views there. Here goes...
Most people don't realize that what the world around them is only a figment of their imagination. Or rather, to be more precise and less bombastic, that the world around them is just a model created by their brain. This model is created using the sensual information available to the brain, and as all of us living a normal life can attest it is quite useful in helping us survive.
However, as optical illusions quickly demonstrate, what we see does not necessarily exist and does not necessarily exist the way we think it does. We know today that solid walls around us are not really as solid as they appear to be; they are mostly made of empty spaces. It is our brain that makes them appear solid!
Our brain works using a few models that have been deemed successful with time, but these models are not always accurate and are not always suitable; they are just models that managed to get our ancestors through raising healthy descendants, us. I guess what I'm trying to say is that in my opinion, the best way to understand the nature of addictions is to call upon the doomsday weapon of evolution. Once you think of addictions in that light it all becomes pretty simple.
We have evolved in a world where stench means trouble, which prevents us from messing around with feces and catching some nasty disease; were we flies, for example, shit would have probably smelt like hot cakes to us. We have evolved in a world where heights scare us because they imply a potentially harmful fall. We have evolved in a world where red signifies danger to us because we are much better off when our blood is not spilled. And we have evolved in a world where creepy crawlers in general and snakes in particular are best avoided if we want to live till tomorrow, thus our extreme panic reaction to their sight.
In contrast, we did not evolve in a world of cigarettes, coffee and alcohol; therefore we can easily fall for them. The best weapons in our arsenal there are knowledge and awareness, the abilities we have to be able to forecast the implications of our future acts. Ignorance, on the other hand, is our worst enemy.
I will stray a bit and mention that the same logic applies to empathy. We have evolved in small hunter/gatherer groups, with no need and no ability to tell what takes place with others we don't really get in touch with on a regular basis. Thus today we end up not really caring about African misery and thus we happily burn our oil supplies while people in the third world are suffering the consequences.
Awareness and education are the best weapons to fight this ignorance. Religion and nationalism are obstacles that stand in our way of getting there.
As far as the challenges parents face when trying to prevent their children from becoming smokers or alcohol addicts, it was mentioned to me that as the child grows up he/she will listen less to their parents and become more prone to the influence of their peer groups. At least by my own experience, that observation seems quite accurate. The question then becomes, how do we prevent a child exposed to uncontrolled peer groups from developing bad habits?
At this stage I can come up with two answers. The first, again, is education: By teaching the child at a very early stage to question, as opposed to teaching him/her with facts alone (or worse - feed him/her with bullshit stories about imaginary friends, aka religion), you provide the child with the facilities to accept the positive out of his/her peer group and reject the negative.
That, however, is not so easily achieved with rebellious teenagers. The other solution is the one I don't really like: by sending your child to a private school, you ensure his/her peer groups are wealthier ones. In this imperfect world we might say that money does not make one a better person, but the reality is that having lots of money is a very good indicator to the way a person is; the problem is that it's a generalization and that it's undemocratic. You can send your kids to a private school and end up with them surrounded by rich idiots instead of poor ones, but that is less likely to happen.
Personally, I would like to see a world where both the rich and the poor are equipped with similar tools to allow them to make the most of their lives. At the moment we are heading towards the exact opposite: It is the poor that are most susceptible to developing bad drug and alcohol habits. Yet I'm still a socialist at heart and I believe in the potential of humans to rise to the occasion and not succumb to what evolution dictates.